Foosball, or table soccer as it is known in some cultures, has somewhat of a disputed history. A British fellow by the name Harold Searles Thornton is credited with the game’s creation because he was issued the first patent for it. However, there are claims that he wasn’t actually the inventor. During the 1880s – 1890s, many say that the game of foosball seem to spring up across Europe as a parlor game. Others claim that inventor French Lucien Rosengart came up with the game of table soccer in the 1930s when he was looking for things to keep his grandchildren entertained during the cold winter months. Spain also wants the credit for the game, claiming that Alexandre de Finesterre invented it during a fit of boredom while in the hospital for injuries from the Spanish Civil War. He supposedly patented it in 1937, but the paperwork was lost.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter who actually invented the game, because on November 1, 1923 the patent was registered by Harold Searles Thornton. That’s why Thornton gets all the credit. And after his uncle, Louis P. Thornton, visited him from the United States, he went on to patent the game in the US in 1927. Sadly, poor Louis has little success with table soccer in the U.S. and he actually let the patent expire! And that is likely why there is so much uncertainty in regards to the history of the game.
Fast forward a few decades and the game of foosball is rapidly spreading across the world. The Belgians were responsible for the very first league in the 1950s. And by 1976, the world saw the formation of the European Table Soccer Union. It was take decades more before it re-emerged in the United States, thanks to soldier Lawrence Patterson, who experienced the game while stationed in Germany in the 1960s.
It was 1962 when Patterson got his first Bavarian-made table into the U.S. and he trademarked the term in both the U.S. and Canada. He focused on coin-operated tables, and they became wildly popular in the U.S. in the 1980s due to the popularity of arcades at the time. In 1970, the first American-made foosball table was created by Bob Hayes and Bob Furr. These two were responsible for the game becoming a national phenomenon during the 1970s. Even Sports Illustrated was covering tournaments – that’s how popular the game was at the time.
In the 1980s, Pac-Man and the rise of video games contributed to the demise of table soccer’s popularity in America. But not to worry, it began slowly making a comeback and the U.S. joined the International Table Soccer Federation back in 2003. However, it has still not reached the same level of popularity as it has in the 1970s.
For more on foosball’s history, check out this story from Smithsonian Magazine.